The Terrain of Terrorism

Academics from USGIF-accredited universities collaborate on new book


What does geography have to do with international terrorism? More than one might think. “Oftentimes, poverty is looked at as one of the precursors to people starting terrorist movements; but if that were the case, Haiti [the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere] would have become a terrorist haven a long time ago,” said George Hepner, co-author of the recently-released book, The Geography of International Terrorism: An Introduction to Spaces and Places of Violent Non-State Groups.

According to Hepner, who is also chair of the geography department at the University of Utah, the formation of terrorist groups stems from the fusion of many factors, including political instability, economic and educational discrimination, and in most cases, key individuals who are able to rally people around terrorist philosophies. Once these ideals take root in a region, their sustainability has much to do with geography.

“Take the very small island of Sri Lanka, for example,” Hepner said. “There’s not a lot of land area, but because of the dense jungle, complex terrain, [and proximity to India], a very active terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers was able to exist until very recently and mount a decades-long terrorist campaign against the Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka.”

Prior to writing this book, Hepner created a course titled “The Geography of Terrorism and Homeland Security,” which examines the geographic factors that foster active regions of terrorism, and looks at the use of geospatial technologies such as GIS, satellite imagery, and GPS in regard to U.S. homeland security policies.

While teaching this course in 2005, Hepner met Ph.D. student Richard Medina, who would become his co-author for the book. The pair collaborated on research into terrorist networks as complex systems, taking into account geographic, spatial, and social interactions.

Medina, who is now a professor of geography and geoinformation science at George Mason University, developed and teaches a similar course. GMU and the University of Utah both offer USGIF-accredited GEOINT certificate programs, with Utah recently achieving accreditation in 2012.

“The book was a natural progression out of the courses we had been teaching because we have compiled so much information,” Medina said. “This is a much-needed area of study, and there’s not a lot out there about it.”

The Geography of International Terrorism is one of the first books to look at terrorism from a geospatial analysis vantage point rather than through a geopolitical lens. The book’s conclusion discusses the implications of two factors that have the potential to drive conflict and impact terrorism: climate change and globalization.

“If we don’t understand all the moving parts to the current huge body of complex problems that are creating a greater global environment of uncertainty, we are not going to be able to understand and anticipate these problems in the future, especially problems of terrorism and other forms of conflict,” Medina said.

Hepner and Medina said their research into the link between geography and terrorism is, for the most part, uncharted territory in the academic world as well.

“A lot of universities have terrorism classes within their international studies or political science departments, but those classes don’t focus on the geographical aspects of terrorism,” Hepner said. “This book has the potential to become a textbook for a course about the geography of terrorism or a class related to geospatial intelligence.”


Beyond Academics

University of Missouri students participate in cutting-edge GEOINT research